Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) has been gone for a quarter of a century now, and responsible evaluation of his impact on Christian culture is just getting underway. Two major biographies have been published recently: Barry Hankins’ Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America (Eerdmans, 2009) and Colin Duriez’s Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (Crossway, 2008).
Perhaps the evangelical culture at large has passed through some of the same stages I passed through in appreciating Schaeffer. When a friend gave me my first Francis Schaeffer book (How Should We Then Live), it knocked my socks off so far that I had to read it barefoot. This author exuded passion and confidence as he opined about Michelangelo, John Cage, Thomas Aquinas, and the Beatles. He was full of wonder about all these things that I had never heard a Christian critic talking about, and he read the world as if every cultural artifact were a clue that led inexorably to solving his big presuppositional apologetic crime of the century. Here was a renaissance man who could explain Renaissance Man.
Then as I studied more of these things myself, I began to see how tendentious many of Schaeffer’s interpretations were. Whereas at first I had been forced to take his word for it, as I became more familiar with art and philosophy and culture, I was able to render independent judgments on my own, and compare them to his. He hadn’t quite grasped what Aquinas was up to, had he? And the way he described Kant… peculiar. Was cubism really all about the dissolving of form? Had he actually read a single page of Karl Barth, or did he just dismiss him unread? And so on. I think my first judgments about all those things had been pretty facile, and as I refined and developed my understanding, I imputed my facile judgments to Schaeffer’s bold simplifications and generalizations, and told myself I had outgrown Francis Schaeffer.
But when I finally pulled the dusty volumes of Schaeffer’s books back down from the shelf, I had to admit this was still powerful stuff. Anybody who moved as nimbly as Schaeffer over so much territory was bound to work by intuition and rough-and-ready summary. For what it is, this is great stuff. He was fundamentally right about existentialism in its many guises, wasn’t he? And that actually did explain a lot of modern art and music –not all of it, but a lot. Time after time, Schaeffer scored direct hits and said what mattered most for his audience:
It is not more spiritual to believe without asking questions. It is not more biblical. It is less biblical and eventually it will be less spiritual, because the whole man will not be involved… It must be the whole man who comes to understand that the gospel is truth and believes because he is convinced on the basis of good and sufficient reason that it is truth.
I think Schaeffer’s published work continues to speak to new audiences today, and the many students whose lives were changed by personal interaction with him continue to be important influences in the world.